There is growing support for legislation guaranteeing the right of students to hold religious meetings at school.
Last month’s lengthy school-prayer debate in Congress failed to produce the votes needed for a constitutional amendment. But it provided a tremendous boost for “equal-access” legislation being considered in both houses.
The speeches and media attention “plowed the ground for us perfectly,” says Dan Evans, legislative assistant to U.S. Rep. Don Bonker (D-Wash.). The debate showed that some courts are too strict in prohibiting voluntary religious meetings on school property, he says.
Equal access is considered more substantial—and less symbolic—than President Reagan’s proposed prayer amendment. The legislation addresses a problem plaguing increasing numbers of high school students. Principals and school boards, reacting to court decisions prohibiting the establishment of religion, have forbidden student Bible club meetings and voluntary prayer groups. Critics say this is an overreaction.
In Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the “Petros” club was banned after a school board attorney decided that any religious speech on school grounds is unconstitutional, even if it is voluntary, nonsectarian, and takes place before or after school hours. Lisa Bender, a student who organized the group, filed suit and won in federal court (CT, June 17, 1983, p. 30). Because that decision contradicts other lower court rulings, the issue is likely to come before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court upheld the equal-access principle for college students in Widmar v. Vincent. But the principle has not been expanded to include secondary or elementary school students. This broader application is the intent of two equal-access proposals now before ...1
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